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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Nutrition

While winter has a lot going for it (think Christmas, hot chocolate, log fires, wooly jumpers), there is one important thing that we really miss out on - light.

During the winter months, many of us arrive at work before dawn, leave after sunset and get very little exposure to natural light in between. Going long periods without getting enough sunlight can result in a debilitating health condition called ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD).

In this article we are going to look at the connection between SAD and nutrition and discover what foods can help you stay healthy and happy through the winter season.

What is SAD?

SAD (sometimes referred to as the ‘the winter blues’) is a common depressive disorder that affects around 3% of the population during the autumn and winter months. Symptoms experienced by sufferers include low mood, cravings for carbohydrates, hypersomnia (over-sleeping) and increased appetite. SAD occurs more frequently in women than men and is much more common amongst people who already experience depression, with around 70% of such people experiencing an increase in depressive symptoms during autumn/winter.

While we do not fully understand the cause of SAD, It is thought to relate to an imbalance of neurotransmitters (the brain's chemical messengers), specifically melatonin and serotonin. Among its many functions, serotonin plays a role in mood stability and reduced levels have been linked to depression. In fact, many anti-depressant medications work by encouraging serotonin to stick around in the brain, thus boosting mood. Serotonin production requires light and so levels can drop significantly during darker months.

Melatonin helps to regulate sleep but over-production can cause drowsiness and lethargy. Contrary to serotonin, melatonin production is suppressed by light and produced in the dark, so extended hours of darkness can result in that desire to crawl into bed and stay there, a common symptom of SAD.

Using nutrition to fight SAD

Another potential trigger for SAD is vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is important for regulating mood and the most efficient way of taking it in is via sunlight. This becomes more difficult during the winter when the days are shorter and bad weather means that we spend less time outside. Sitting near a window is not an effective way to absorb vitamin D as the chemical process only occurs via direct exposure.

Luckily, vitamin D also comes from food sources. Oily fish, eggs and beef are all good sources of vitamin D. If you are vegan or if you still feel that you are not able to get enough from your food, there are plenty of high quality supplements available, however always check that you are taking vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Some supplements contain D2 (ergocalciferol), which is less effective at finding its way into the bloodstream. Always consult a doctor or qualified nutritional therapist before beginning a course of supplements. If you would like to learn more about the role vitamin D plays in your health, this article goes into more depth.

Another way that you can utilise nutrition to combat SAD is by eating foods that are rich in tryptophan. Tryptophan helps the body to produce serotonin, aiding in relaxation and sleep regulation. Good sources of tryptophan include dairy, eggs, fish, dark chocolate, dates, bananas, spirulina, peanuts and almonds. Combining tryptophan-rich foods with complex carbohydrates such as wholegrain rice and wholegrain pasta can help its efficacy.

What else can you do?

Many people report that sitting close to a full-spectrum light source, often called a SAD lamp, is effective at reducing their symptoms. In fact, around 70% of people notice a significant improvement. It is recommended that you spend around 30 minutes a day in front of your full-spectrum light source and remember, most light enters through the eyes so make sure you do not sit with your back to the lamp.

As with all forms of depression, exercise (especially outdoors) is one of the most effective treatments. Exercise gives you a big psychological boost, while triggering the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that help to boost mood. The best form of exercise to do is the one that you can maintain, whether that is running, cycling, aerobics or just going for a gentle walk. The main thing is that you keep moving but exercise that gets you out and into nature may give you an extra benefit when combating the symptoms of SAD.

If you don’t enjoy vigorous exercise, don’t worry: Even a 10-minute walk during your lunch break, getting off one bus stop early, walking to the shops instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of the escalators or lift are better than nothing.

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